Photographing the American Wilderness
"Views of California," an exhibit of 300 photographs by Robert Vance, captivated New Yorkers in 1851. These pictures of the Western wilderness caused such a sensation that most later government-sponsored expeditions to chart the Western territories included a professional photgrapher on staff.
Invented in 1839, photography then was a new technology. Before taking a picture, photographers had to coat a glass plate with solution. Once the plate was exposed, it had to be developed immediately in a portable darkroom. Three months' worth of supplies carried by pack mules included as many as 300 plates of various sizes, some of them weighing as much as four pounds each.
Like painters of the era, photographers were influenced by the ideas of Manifest Destiny and Transcendentalism. They depicted nature as a spiritual place, where humanity could achieve union with God. In 1871, expedition leader Clarence King described the Sierra Nevada:
"The whole mountains shaped themselves like the ruins of cathedrals ... pinnacled and statued; buttresses more spired and ornamented than Milan's...."
At the same time, a relatively young United States was still seeking its cultural identity, and found a source of inspiration in the Western wilderness. A Cosmopolitan Art Journal editorial of 1859 declared,
"Some [artists] have gone to the far West, where Nature plays with the illimitable and grand. ...If such is the spirit and persistency of American art, we may well promise ourselves good things for the future."
On an 1861 trip to the Yosemite Valley, Carleton Watkins took photographs which established him as a leading photographer. They also convinced President Abraham Lincoln to deed Yosemite as park land to the state of California, paving the way for a system of national parks.
Watkins, who lived from 1829-1916, was born in Oneonta, New York. He moved to California in 1851, around the time of the gold rush, and eventually opened his own studio in San Francisco in 1867. A year later, he received a gold medal for his landscape photographs at an international exposition in Paris.
As he grew older, Watkins was unable to continue with photography, due to his failing eyesight. He was devastated when all of his negatives were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Watkins was committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane in 1910, where he died six years later.
The photographer who helped to create Yellowstone National Park was William Henry Jackson. Senator Samuel Clarke Pomeroy of Kansas used Jackson's 1871 photographs of Old Faithful and other wonders while advocating wilderness preservation on the Senate floor. Jackson's traveling companion, painter Thomas Moran, had produced depictions of Yellowstone that were equally dazzling to Eastern politicians. The following year, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill preserving Yellowstone as America's first national park.
Born in 1843, Jackson had worked as a staff artist during the Civil War. He later became the official photographer for Ferdinand Hayden's expeditions during the 1870s. At the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, Jackson received seven gold medals for his Yellowstone photographs. In 1893 he served as the official photographer for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Before he died in 1942, Jackson saw his work displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
A two-year-old Timothy O'Sullivan came to the United States from Ireland with his family in 1842. During the Civil War, he photographed battlefields, notably Gettysburg and Antietam. In 1867 he became the official photographer for Clarence King's Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel. O'Sullivan later worked on other expeditions as well.
O'Sullivan eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed the Treasury Department's official photographer in 1880. He died two years later of tuberculosis, at the age of 42.
Unlike many early photographers, O'Sullivan did not consider his works artistic. Ironically, Ansel Adams was impressed with his creativity. Adams wrote,
"Up to that time I had seen few photographs of the American West of any consequence. ... Here were perceptive images, well-composed, of high technical quality, and definitely suggesting a creative personality."
Adams called O'Sullivan's 1873 photograph of the Canyon de Chelly "one of the most extraordinary photographs ever made in America." In 1941, Adams made his own version of O'Sullivan's original, shooting at the same location and time of day.
Adams curated "A Pageant of Photography" for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1940. Housed in San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, the exposition gave an overview of the history of American photography, so closely interlinked with the American wilderness. A section called "Early American Western Photography" contained works by Watkins, Jackson, and O'Sullivan, as well as others. In the introduction to the exhibit's catalogue, Adams wrote, "We cannot fail to be impressed by the ...exciting work of the great Western photographers such as Jackson, O'Sullivan, and Watkins." These adventurous individuals, Adams' precursors, documented pristine parts of the continent and used their work to advocate for the preservation of the American landscape, as would Adams in his turn.